C-suite issues PR a license to lead

Faculty leaders distilled the wisdom of 20 CCOs and top CEOs in their latest book to define the key role of PR in providing strategic counsel to the C-suite.

Ron Culp and Matt Ragas spearhead DePaul's award-winning PR and advertising faculty.
Ron Culp and Matt Ragas spearhead DePaul's award-winning PR and advertising faculty.

For decades, the PR profession has argued that it needs to be in or near "the room where it happens" to do its job most effectively.

By and large, this has now happened.

Inside many large corporations, there is now a chief communications officer (CCO), who is typically a member of the senior leadership team.

In the wise words of industry icon Harold Burson, the corporate PR function has evolved from being responsible for simply "how to say it" and "what to say" - master of the message - to "what to do" - the emergent role of PR as strategic counsel to the C-suite.

Much commentary and research in our field looks inward, with PR professionals providing advice to other professionals. Such efforts are important and valuable, but they are not enough. If PR is really a strategic function to business leaders, we need to gain a better understanding of how these leaders perceive our role and value across the enterprise.

Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators: Insights and Advice from the C-suite of Leading Brands features essays from more than 20 top CCOs, many of them members of the Arthur W. Page Society, as well as commentary from C-suite colleagues such as CEOs, presidents, CFOs, and other C-level leaders. These brands include Boeing, GM, MillerCoors, SAP, Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Vodafone, and Walgreens Boots Alliance.

A consistent theme shared by these C-suite leaders is the need for CCOs and communication teams to demonstrate they’re bona fide businesspeople with an expertise in communication. How can someone provide strategic counsel if they are not an expert on the business, the industry, and the drivers of it?

Gavin Hattersley, CEO of MillerCoors, the U.S. operations of global brewer Molson Coors, says, "whether you are a lawyer, an HR, finance, operations or communications executive, I expect my team [to have] a full understanding of their functional areas and our business overall."

"Any young communication professional should act as an internal news reporter to understand in-depth each function at the company," adds Hattersley.

C-suite leaders also said they value CCOs who provide courageous counsel that incorporates a diverse range of stakeholder views.

For example, Serpil Timuray, chief commercial operations and strategy officer of Vodafone Group, one of the world’s largest telecom companies, explains that "presenting the company to the world is an important aspect of the communicator’s role; but so too is the need to bring the world into the company, ensuring managers fully understand and respond to shifts in public sentiment."

Timuray calls this the "dual-facing" role of the CCO and their team. Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, the global software giant, echoes this, stating simply: "Give [business leaders] candid advice, based heavily on a true ‘outside-in’ perspective."

C-suite leaders also said CCOs and their teams are critical in communicating corporate strategy. Such strategy should be consistent with corporate purpose and character.

Many different stakeholder groups were mentioned, but employee engagement was emphasized as being particularly critical. For example, Tom Nealon, president of Southwest Airlines, argues that "the success of a 50,000-plus employee airline adopting a single corporate strategy depends on each employee knowing the what, why, and how," which is a "daunting task."

Linda Rutherford, CCO of Southwest, likens this task to taking on the challenge to "communicate the amoeba." To do so, Rutherford says she and her team had to take a "big, hairy audacious goal" and make it "real, real, real" for Southwest’s employees.

In a related vein, Steve Shebik, until recently CFO of Allstate and since promoted to be its vice-chairman, acknowledged that "translating complex business strategy into simple concepts isn’t easy" but "strong communication pays off."

It is clear that the role and need for PR professionals as strategic counselor to the C-suite is greater than ever.

In the current political climate, not a week goes by without major corporations grappling with what stance to take on social issues. Such turbulent times provide the PR profession with a unique opportunity to provide leadership across the enterprise and beyond.

Let’s make the most of this license to lead.

Matt Ragas and Ron Culp are co-directors of the PR and advertising graduate program at DePaul University and co-editors of the new book titled Mastering Business for Strategic Communicators.

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